I got another call from Agnes right after she saw her doctor. The news was not surprising since she told me that her internist recommended that she go immediately into hospice. When going into a hospice program it means that for most they have less than six months to live and only palliative care is given. I did not say anything, but only brought up the point, that if in hospice, no aggressive treatment can be implemented. I did not mention anything about the six months. A couple of days are another 48 hours, in which she can adapt to her new situation a little bit more before she gets the news.
So she got right to the point, one of her strengths. “I have two months”, which surprised me, but her cancer is the small cell variety and very fast moving, at least that is what she was told. She will stay in her apartment and hospice will come for visits during the week. They help with baths, see how comfortable she is and may even do some cleaning if needed. Afterwards, when she becomes weaker, which should be only a matter of weeks; then she will be moved into a hospice facility. As we talked, I really made a strong point about how well hospice takes care of pain and will also take her spiritual needs seriously. She was of course in shock; two months to live, when only mere days ago she was probably thinking in terms of decades. She is after all in her early 60’s.
The only thing I have to offer is to simply be there for her. I told her I would try to visit at least once a week and hopefully I will be able to be with her when the end comes. She broke down and cried and said “oh Mark that would be wonderful”. I may be unlikely that will happen, but I will keep my cell phone on during the night just in case when the end seems near. Phones are great; I will be able to at least talk with her on her cell phone on a regular basis.
I am going to visit her today and bring her some things that she likes. Milk Chocolate! Well she is a woman after all, and I have met few who do not like that. Then she asked if I would stop off at McDonalds and bring her an “Egg McMuffin”. I think she has a tinny, tiny, addiction to them. Then she said: “I know they are not really that good for me”; so I laughed and said: “Well Agnes, I think you can eat anything you want now, you are free in that regard”. She laughed. She has a booming laugh, something I have always loved about her. No matter how bad things would be for her, I could always get her to laugh. She also cried a lot and would always apologize for that. Then I would say: “Agnes, if you did not cry every time we talked, then I would start to worry!” That always got her laughing again. In many respects she is very childlike and open, though it is not often seen by those who don’t know her very well.
She being Catholic, I will bring her the Eucharist when I visit. Another little thing I can do for her. I am going to try to get a priest to drop in and give her the “anointing of the sick.” A very important sacrament for Catholic’s and I have seen some remarkable changes when this graced filled ritual is enacted. The Catholic Church has many problems, yet in regard to the sacraments they are true vehicles of deep healing for many.
Because she has such a limited time left I think she is becoming more beautiful to me as a person. Things speed up, years compacted into weeks, or perhaps even less time, it is hard to tell. I think with her type of cancer, because it has spread so fast, the two months prognosis could be a long shot.
Why am I writing this? Well if you hear of a friend that is dying, don’t withdraw even if there is fear. Don’t pretend if you do visit that death is not near. Ask about their comfort, emotional states, spiritual needs if that is appropriate and if possible after that is taken care of and they feel listened to; then try to get them to laugh, or to talk about their lives, or whatever they want. For the dying are often so isolated, abandoned by friends who simply don’t know how to react. It is not done in bad will, just fear, a very human experience and understandable.
However fear has many functions. One is of course to protect and in those situations it would be beyond stupid not to listen to that. Then there are other times when fear presents a wall that needs to be climbed or stepped over. It deepens the ability to experience life in broader strokes and in the process the heart expands and becomes more all inclusive of the human situation. So embrace a friend who is dying, listen, love and sneak them in any kind of food they want. Don’t push ones beliefs but accompany them on their own journey. For God’s work in each life is truly a deep and wondrous mystery.
I fail in many ways, for being a caregiver has many pitfalls. Yet even then it is good to own up to it and to keep trying. Boundaries are needed and as much as I hate the word, for I often think it is used to control others; co-dependency is deadly. It only leads to resentment and anger, something most care givers have to deal with. It is a warning sign that too much is trying to be done and a little backing off and a deepening of respect is needed.
The gift of those dying is to allow us to accompany them, it is an important part of life, so please embrace and love those near and dear who are near death. Truly talk to them, be real, for they know if avoidance is present. Of course some that are dying want that and that will become apparent early one. Then it is appropriate to do what they want, but from my experience this is rare. What is not rare is both sides trying to protect the other from pain, when if fact if openness was lived out both parties would benefit.
One day, most of us will need someone to accompany us, so just think what you would want, and then treat the one you are with in the same manner. OK, don’t mean to too preach, don’t want to offend, but people are precious, all of them. So love them, cherish, hold, and if possible lead them to similes and laughter. To be able to laugh is one of God’s greatest gifts to use human. Just think what life would be without it?